A Test of Democracy in Thailand

Published on July 12, 2011

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Global Times – July 7, 2011

Thailand, a nation of 66 million people, is known as the “land of smiles” by tourists worldwide. This second largest economic power in Southeast Asia has often been plagued by political crisis. In recent years, the sociopolitical schism has been more problematic since 2006 when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from office.

The July 3 electoral victory for Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai (For Thais) party has given another hope of stabilizing a wavering democracy. The latest political outcome is a consequence of the struggle between two dominant political factions ― the urban middle class and the rural poor areas, also popularly known as the yellow-shirts and the red-shirts.

As evidenced from its history, any political twist can develop within Thai politics, where monarchy and the army have tremendous influence on politics. Both the 2006 and 2007 election results were nullified by the court for reasons of corruption and abuse of power by Thaksin Shinawatra of the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party and his successor, Samak Sundaravej of People’s Power Party, on charges of conflict of interest.

Somchai Wongsawat was chosen by parliament to replace Samak, who was accused of being a puppet of Thaksin by the yellow-shirt protesters in 2008. The People’s Power Party was disbanded by a constitutional court for alleged electoral fraud and all its leaders, including Prime Minister Somchai, were barred from politics for five years, which paved the way for the opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to become the prime minister.

If democracy were to take precedence in Thai politics today (that means if the mandate of the voters were to be taken into account), Thailand is poised to have its first female prime minister in its history. The 44-year-old business executive, Yingluck, is a novice in politics.

However, the opposition could attempt to disrupt Yingluck from assuming office under two circumstances. The first reason is on the ground of her being a puppet or proxy for the convicted former Prime Minister Thaksin.

The second factor, although very unlikely to be an issue, is about gender discrimination. If the Thai people, particularly the opposition, were to oppose a female leader to head the country, there can be another political bickering. However, this is apparently a non-issue because of a clear verdict from the voters.

Unless the Thai people are prepared for national reconciliation, an accusation of Yingluck being a puppet of her brother has the possibility of emanating another political crisis. The previous successors of Thaksin (Somchai and Samak) were both accused on similar charges.

Yingluck’s victory is another way of expression of love and support for her deposed brother who lives in exile. It has been less than two months when the Pheu Thai Party named Yingluck as the party leader on May 16. By electing her as their leader, the red-shirts want to see the return of their exiled leader.

Given the army’s excessive use of force that resulted in the death of more than 90 people and around 1,800 wounded during the red-shirts’ protests in May 2010, the army is less likely to allow a similar violent confrontation.

Whether the new government can bring peace and reconciliation is a question that remains to be seen. Its success is likely to be dependent upon two factors ― how Yingluck’s government handles Thaksin’s homecoming and how the new government plans to pursue charges against those responsible for the deaths during red-shirts’ protests in 2010.

As Thaksin is legally barred from politics for corruption charges and has had a two-year jail sentence for graft imposed on him, Abhisit and the yellow-shirts may find difficult to accept amnesty for their political rival.

If Thailand wants to build a peaceful society, it is paramount that the different political factions pursue the path of sociopolitical reconciliation, rather than vengeance or a personal vendetta. Otherwise, the new government will be a short-lived one even if it can be successfully formed.

Moreover, it is also important that the royal family, the country’s judiciary and the military take a neutral role to earn the trust and respect of people from different political beliefs and affiliations.

A strong and stable Thai government is also crucial for the success of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where Thailand has been a strong advocate for the protection and promotion of democracy and human rights in the regional bloc.

The success of democracy in Thailand is particularly important for Myanmar (Burma), its neighbor and another member of ASEAN, which is yet to undergo a national reconciliation process. Like Thailand, Myanmar has the potential of electing a female leader if and when a genuine democracy is established in the country.

Democracy will prevail if both the red-shirts and yellow-shirts can bury their past differences and take a concerted approach to accommodate the views and needs of both the urban middle class and the rural poor. What Thailand needs is a leader who can bridge the gap between these two poles ― the haves and have-nots.

The landslide electoral victory for the Pheu Thai Party is a new test of democracy in Thailand.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a political analyst and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) whose works have been widely published in five continents ― Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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